Part 3: How Jonny Spielt Auf became the face of Entartete Musik (Degenerate Music) in the Third Reich

In Part 2, I covered how Jonny Spielt Auf is directly related to the American Minstrelsy and blackface traditions. But before we can get into the details of Nazi’s reaction to this opera, we have to cover the plot. From the poster and all material, it seems like the opera is centered on Jonny, the American jazz band musician. But the opera revolves around a love triangle between Anita–a opera singer, and her two lovers, Max–a composer, and Daniello–a violinist. Jonny’s actions set the plot into motion. Daniello owns a rare and priceless violin and Jonny, a fiddle player (not a saxophonist despite the poster) wants Daniello’s violin so he uses his girlfriend Yvonne–a maid, to sneak into Daniello’s hotel room and steal the violin. Jonny is essentially a precursor to Samuel L. Jackson’s character in The Red Violin, switching violins and hiding his contraband in Anita’s luggage before retrieving it in the final scene. There’s really not too much to the plot, the story is quite thin. It’s the technological advancements on the stage that captured Germany’s imagination. But when the opera premiered in Munich in 1928, it caused a riot. The newly formed Nazi party, saw Jonny as a threat to Germany.

The roots of Nazism maintains Aryan superiority over all races. We focus on it’s anti-semitism, but anti-blackness is also central to it’s belief system. After WWI, black soldiers from French colonies in North Africa were stationed in Germany in the Rhineland occupation. The French acceptance of American jazz music, and especially Josephine Baker, further reinforced how jazz and blackness was tied to French culture. Nazi’s used the term “the black shame on the Rhine” as an insult to France and their openness towards black culture. Historian Marc A. Weiner details how “American jazz became the acoustical sign of the transplanted black and thus it could designate both America as the foreign and victorious New World divorced from European traditions and, at the same time, Africa as the purportedly uncivilized Dark Continent from which the feared black was seen to challenge Europe’s racial and national hegemony.” [1] Jonny, as a minor character, fit many of the stereotypes of African American men that the Nazis perceived as threatening. Jonny threatened racial hegemony as shown by his affair with the white maid. He used her to steal a priceless European violin—a direct insult to European art and culture—while using that priceless violin to play jazz, uncivilized music from the New World.

When Jonny Spielt Auf premiered in 1927, it became an instantaneous hit in Germany and Austria, but when it premiered in Munich–the birthplace of Nazism– in 1928, Nazis protested outside the theater and started a riot inside the theater. When Jonny first entered the scene, a group of Nazis booed him. Next they set off a stink bomb, then they released tear gas. The gas interfered with the singers and the show was stopped. Despite the interference, the show went on and the rioters were later arrested. The review of the opera was lukewarm, but notes how the Nazi’s reaction to this show is the best publicity, because it will only make more people interested in watching it. Nazis were unable to stop this performance and lost that day, but when Nazis rose to power a few years later, they set out to destroy Krenek’s career.

Because of the rise of Nazism and the reaction to Jonny Spielt Auf, Krenek left Germany to return to Austria in 1928 and refocus his efforts on new music. His friendship with Arnold Schoenberg and brief marriage to Alma Mahler (Gustav’s daughter), convinced the Nazis that he must be secretly Jewish (he was Catholic). In 1933 the Vienna Opera canceled the premiere of his new opera, Karl V, under pressure from Nazi supporters. His career in Austria was essentially over and he emigrated to the United States in 1938.

In 1938, the Reichsmusiktage (Reich music days) opened in Dusseldorf on Richard Wagner’s 125th birthday. It was a celebration of German music, organized by the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. At the same time, the a rival exhibit Entartete Musik (Degenerate Music) opened that showcased music that threatened Nazi’s worldview. This took place one year after the Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art Exhibition) showcased art works by Jewish artists and other Expressionists. The poster accompanying the Entartete Musik exhibit is a blackface saxophonist with a Star of David on his lapel. Without knowing the context, this poster can be seen as the Jewish connection– George Gershwin or Al Jolson–to Black American music like jazz. This was all a threat to Nazi cultural hegemony, the exhibit highlighted music that contrasted the music celebrated in Reichsmusiktage.

But in the context of Germany, this poster for Entartete Musik is a throwback to the original poster of Jonny Spielt Auf. Anyone attending the exhibit would see this work as reference to Krenek’s opera. Two years later, a Nazi-sponsored enclyclopedia, Lexikon der Juden in der Musik (Encyclopedia of Jews in Music), was published. It listed all Jewish and half-Jewish composers. This essentially was a book that listed all works that were forbidden in the Third Reich. Krenek, who did not have any Jewish ancestry, was listed in the book. Krenek’s use of a black character in opera scandalized the rising National Socialist Party and they used his opera as a warning to composers and other artists who might try to humanize black characters.

In part 4 of this series on blackface, I’ll look at modern productions of Jonny Spielt Auf. The good, the bad, and the cringe-inducing.

[1] Marc A. Weiner. “Urwaldmusik and the Borders of German Identity: Jazz in Literature of the Weimar Republic,” German Quarterly, 64 (4) 1991, pg. 478.

Published by Mary Huntimer

Saxophonist, teacher, opera and silent movie enthusiast. All opinions are my own.

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